16 Dec 2017
The evolution of the Hacienda
The Haciendas of Yucatan emerged as family businesses in colonial times (17th century) and have now become historical attractions for visitors to Yucatan state. Many of the haciendas were originally cattle ranches and later converted to henequen. Henequén is a type of agave cactus (family Agavaceae) which is processed for its fibers, primarily to produce rope. The fiber strands are known as sisal and are similar to processed hemp fiber. Sisal fiber was an important export of Yucatan in the mid to late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In the 1830’s there were attempts at large scale sisal production but the lack of shredding machinery limited the supply.
Yaxcopoil Hacienda in the Yucatan
Yaxcopoil is an excellent example of a working hacienda that dates back to the 17th century. Yaxcopoil means The place of the green Alamo trees and offers a look back at three centuries: the pre-hispanic period, Spanish colonial times and the years of henquen production. Yaxcopoil was one of the most important haciendas of Yucatan due to its enormous size of 22,000 acres and its classic beauty. Today it is only 3% of its former size but still offers visitors an inside look at the glory days of the haciendas. At Yaxcopoil the rooms of the Casa Principal (the residence of the owner) contain authentic antiques and furnishings from those days. A church or chapel at each hacienda was common and at Yaxcopoil you can still see an oil painting of its patron saint, San Geronimo de Yaxcopoil. Yaxcopoil also features The Mayan Room which displays Mayan pottery and other artifacts found on the grounds dating back to the “classic period” 250-900 AD.
The “Green Gold” henequen
The industrial revolution of the late 19th century revolutionized henequen processing when shredding machines were invented. These were powered by steam or diesel engines and each henequen hacienda had its signature chimney. Many old farm/estates were converted to sisal production and soon henequen became known as the “green gold”. Great halls were fitted with massive engines in order to power leaf shredding machines via a system of gigantic belts and pulleys. Fields not used to grow henequen were fitted with drying racks and the fibers subsequently pressed into bales and stacked in warehouses. Small gauge trains transported both the leaves and bales on networks of Decauville rails which connected various parts of the hacienda. Trains also transported sisal bales to the seaport Gulf of Mexico towns of Sisal and Progreso, ready for international export. Sisal was in very high demand for rope production during World War 1 (1914-1918). Hacienda owners made fortunes from the “green gold” and the city of Merida blossomed with the wealth.
At the haciendas houses were built for the overseas administrators, supervisors and workers. Since haciendas were actually rural ranches, all services such as schools, infirmaries, chapels and stores needed to be built. Many of these evolved into villages around the haciendas.
The government that came into power after the Revolution of 1910 carried out agrarian reforms and redistribution of the land which had a detrimental effect and eventually caused the sisal market to decline. As a result many haciendas were eventually abandoned and their buildings reclaimed by the jungle. Today the skeletons of buildings and towering smoke stacks can occasionally be seen from many rural roads in Yucatan.
Henequen is the Mexican name for this cactus like plant which is a type of agave (family Agavaceae or Liliaceae). Above, henequen growing in the field and below, after processing sisal fibers hang out to dry.
Haciendas in the Yucatan Mexico
Restoration varies at the haciendas. Some have been fully restored, refurbished, and transformed into luxury resort/hotels, complete with air conditioned suites, restaurants, spas and guest services. Hacienda Ochil (below) is located south of Yaxcopoil and also dates from the 17th century. It is frequented by Merida locals and travelers to the Uxmal ruins. The hacienda has restored workshops with modern day craftsmen, a nice restaurant for lunch and a small but very interesting museum. The museum has relics from the old Ochil functional hacienda and photos from more than one historical henequin hacienda including machinery, tools and equipment from the henequen era. Ochil’s grounds have the old train tracks intact, a henequen field, drying sisal, smoke stack chimney and historical photos of other area haciendas which have since been converted to luxury hotels including: Santa Rosa, San Jose Cholul and Temozon.
Because Merida is the cultural center and capital city of Yucatan state there are many colonial haciendas and points of interest near the city. The haciendas on this web page are all within an hour’s drive of Merida with the exception of Hacienda Uayamon in Campeche.